I'll start this review by saying that I've never been on a cruise before. My brother and sister-in-law has cruised on Royal Caribbean before and always praised it, but given that one of those enormous ships are quite a world away from the MS Volendam, I was essentially taking a fresh look. Plus we weren't sure if we'd enjoy it (the wife and I). I used to work for the NAAFI aboard HMS Albion and Bulwark, and so I've been to sea for extended periods (longest was over six weeks at a time), but the wife had never been aboard before.
So we got all prepped and pre-ordered two soda cards prior to boarding as neither of us drink. After asking around on the Facebook page we boarded just after midday last Wednesday and had a very pleasant experience boarding - we were even recommended the bread pudding during the boarding - I'm sure any HAL regular would agree with!
We got to our cabin, 1858 down on the Dolphin Deck. Now I can't praise that cabin enough - everything worked fine, only had some minor issues with our moronic neighbours that left an alarm clock going off in the early hours of the morning while they weren't in the room (but we called the front office and they sent someone up who entered the room and turned the alarm off), and the occasion sound of thrash metal coming through the wall - but nothing I can hold to HAL!
We generally had breakfast in the lido (we only ate in the Rotterdam for breakfast on the first day), and always had lunch in the lido (except for one day when we had room service), and always ate in the Rotterdam for dinner (except for a trip to the Canneletto on Ketchikan night).
Ironically as I'm typing this in my hotel room in Vancouver I just heard the ship's horn signalling the Volendam leaving port to go out on the second IP trip of it's season.
Anyway, back to the food. Generally it was good. I had one steak which was overcooked, but still very edible. My wife did however have one half of a steak which was massively undercooked and had she not ordered two starters that evening then we would have sent it back. Only food I found lacking was the desserts in general - while there were some standouts (the bread pudding and the lemoncello in the Canneletto), in general it all seemed to be very moussey and with no real taste to it. I think the baked alaska had potential but I think I simply chose a bad evening to try it as it changes each night. Although sometimes the dishes aren't quite what you expect from the description, they generally are very tasty, if quite rich.
The self service ban for the first two days is quite annoying, but I can understand it, and if we were cruising for longer than seven days then I think that I'd barely remember it. Certainly having the taco stand open only on day three onwards was a nice taste of home halfway through the trip when it was needed.
I'll get onto the stops in a moment, but just to say that HAL couldn't have gone further with the events on sea days. The best things we did were the towel folding demonstrations, although I can say that there was never a bad thing being demonstrated in the culinary centre and that was apparently with a reduction in the number of events as the Party Planner only joined in Juneau. Never saw the films there, but the ones on the TV were good enough for us, but we tried not to sit in our stateroom too much.
The only downside to the trip was the problem with the soda cards. We pre-ordered them and they never arrived. So we complained to three different people on the first day and eventually by dinner we got given replacement cards. But we went to use them on day two and they'd been cancelled. So after complaining some more, by dinner once more we had been given paper slips to record our drinks on, and then finally overnight the proper cards were slipped under our door. If we hadn't pre-ordered them, then we could simply have picked them up on day one after boarding as they were selling them in the lido. One other issue was Tracy Arm cruising. The online itinary has it listed prior to arriving in Juneau, but we never did it and no one said why - one of our dinner tablemates complained to the front office and they claimed it was never on the itinary and wasn't listed on the website. I have the booking documents to say otherwise - I'm sure Glacier Bay blows Tracy Arm out of the water and overall the good experiences vastly outweighed those two issues.
So onto the ports - now we did this entire trip on a reduced budget - we had actually won the cruise through the Canadian Tourist Board, and so we didn't have anything in the budget for excursions. At Juneau we got off and jumped on a local bus to Mendenhall Glacier at a far cheaper cost than the HAL excursion (which also included some extras which we weren't interested in doing), we went hiking around the area in an attempt to do some Geocaches (which was a complete failure in Juneau), and found that due to there being only being one ship in town this early in the season that it felt like we had our own private glacier. Simply amazing.
Second stop was Skagway. In Juneau it rained a bit (we had expected this and were wearing waterproofs), but in Skagway it was lovely - like a bright warm winters day. Having no excursions we walked around the tourist areas and went two blocks west to the local area too, and stocked up on some snacks from the supermarket. I can't stress enough that I loved Skagway, from the wooden walkways and just frankly how pleasant everyone was, it was a delight. Also anyone going this year I recommend the new popcorn place on the main drag a couple of stores short of the theatre - it's a locally run store and the cheese popcorn was just delicious.
Glacier Bay was something I will never forget. Despite the snow, dense fog and strong winds, the Marjorie Glacier was worth the cost of the entire cruise alone (had we paid for it). Breathtaking and unforgettable, and the rangers helped us understand it greatly.
Ketchikan was our last stop and we were warned it was rainy. Well that's an understatement - it was as if the sky decided it wanted to punish the ground with rain. We still went out but towards the end my waterproofs were beginning to fail - we didn't get out to either the totem park nor the village... but well, I can see why people do the inside passage more than once, so I'm sure we'll get it next time. But so much water. They need to paint everything in neon colors and call it a water park.
Our one sad thing was that the ship passed a pod of 30 or so whales on the way out of Vancouver, and apart from seeing one single water blow from our cabin's window, we were on the wrong side of the ship and completely missed it. But last night as we returned to Vancouver, at about 6:30pm local, we were sitting the crows nest bar and we spotted three Orcas swimming past on the surface. It could have only have been spotted by the twenty or so of us in there at the time, and it felt as if Canada/Alaska had repaid us for our patience.
All in all, it was one of the most wonderful holidays I've ever been on. We've already decided that it will not be our last cruise and we're looking at a cruise from Dover to Scandinavia possibly for 2014 unless we get a seriously good deal next year. HAL has turned a cruise doubter and his doubting wife into two cruise addicts. I totally get it now. If I had the money for it and could get the time off work, I'd already be booking a cruise for later in the summer!
Couldn't have asked for a better time. Thanks HAL!